a tale of two hashtags

Boko Haram, in northeast Nigeria, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), somewhere near the Central African Republic, share several common factors. They are:

  • Destructive violence: In the years since its escalation of mass violence, in 2009, Boko Haram-affiliated attacks have killed large numbers of civilians in northeast Nigeria and, increasingly, northwest Cameroon. In its three decades of insurgency, the LRA has killed fewer but still many civilians. The relative scale of Boko Haram’s violence may have as much to do with the greater demographic size of its targets–towns and, sometimes, cities, in addition to small villages–as with the group’s tactics. Casualty counts aside, the groups’ devastation is constant. Each has crippled its affected local economy, and has caused mass displacement on an extraordinary scale. Those who have survived either group’s violence will not likely live to see their communities restored.
  • Ideology: The common-ground between the respective ideologies of Boko Haram and the LRA is not obvious; notionally, Boko Haram is Muslim, and the LRA is Christian. Whatever their notional differences, however, both Boko Haram and the LRA share an ugly millenarian politics: their respective interpretations of Islam and Christianity advocate mass social upheaval, rather than incremental change. Of course, the LRA’s millenarian belief is more explicit, and its links to the history of millenarianism in northern Uganda, where it was originally formed, are stronger. Historically, violence soon follows millenarianism; whether that’s a consequence of belief, or of other factors, is unclear. Some view ideas–here, ideology–as an important driver of violence; I am not among them.
  • Tactics of violence: Like government forces, violent insurgencies use specific tactics to accomplish strategic goals. Till recently, Boko Haram’s primary tactic was mass violence, which allowed the group to establish a political stranglehold over several local areas in northeast Nigeria. In recent months, Boko Haram has also added kidnapping to its violent arsenal, as during the recent abduction of more than two hundred schoolgirls in Chibok, in northeast Nigeria. LRA-linked fighters frequently abduct children from civilian communities; however, it is not clear that Boko Haram fighters learned the tactic from their counterparts in the LRA. Indeed, the two common tactics probably serve two different functions: many speculate that Boko Haram will hold the Chibok girls for ransom, while LRA fighters rarely use kidnapping for financial gain.
  • The Toto effect: Both Boko Haram and the LRA are located “in Africa.” Similarly, a bistro in France and a butcher in Poland are both located “in Europe.” Really, it’s irrelevant.

The respective violence of Boko Haram and the LRA has sparked two social movements–against Boko Haram (we’ll call this “Bring Back Our Girls”), and against the LRA (“Kony 2012”)–which also share several common factors. They are:

  • Norms: Each movement is accurately described as a member of a larger, global human rights community. Both advance “human rights norms”–that is, an aspirational belief in the safety and security of individual persons. Human rights entail the return and protection of Chibok’s schoolgirls, who remain vulnerable to various abuses while under Boko Haram’s control; likewise, rights require the capture and prosecution of the LRA’s key perpetrators of mass violence, including Joseph Kony, the group’s near-mythical chief. Where their priorities differ, either group shares a guiding principle, in a global sense.
  • Tricky avenues to securing those norms: If the safety and security of individual persons is the dominant concern of both Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012, neither campaign offers a morally pure path toward that goal. Neither the Nigerian military, which would rescue the Chibok schoolgirls, nor the Ugandan military, which would apprehend Kony, will accomplish either goal with minimal harm to civilians; abuses will occur, and often, because the business of these militaries–most militaries, in fact–is more often killing than protecting. Neither is the so-called “political solution” to either insurgency, sans violence, a morally praiseworthy affair. Such is the nature of securing rights: moral action rarely aligns with political reality.
  • A digital public: On Twitter, users refer to the campaign against Boko Haram by its hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls; Kony 2012, #Kony2012. By design, these hashtags are fleeting. Activism seeks to change the basic function and foundation of society; hashtag activism, if we must use the term, only offers a voice to those desires. Applied correctly, that voice can be just as powerful. Hashtagged communities think sentimentally; many fewer follow with moral action. But that’s fine: a digital public–fifty-nine Twitter followers, or twelve-thousand six-hundred and thirty two–is a fungible thing. For some, hashtags are a form of moral self-satisfaction; for others, they are genuine portraits of empathy. We should strive toward the latter, as a moral purpose, but the former is always a necessary intermediary. Leslie Jamison inscribed it best, in an essay “in defense of saccharin(e)”: “[W]e’re talking about people using text to imagine themselves across the distances of separate lives.”

These two categories, and the seven total factors that comprise them, have prompted several comparisons between the Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012 campaigns. In general, the comparison reads:

  • Kony 2012, a campaign largely branded, staged, and claimed by the San Diego-based advocacy organization Invisible Children, was an inorganic movement: it was, in Lydia Polgreen’s words, a campaign for Californians, and not for the survivors of the LRA’s violence. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is Nigerian-born, branded, staged, and claimed. Therefore, the campaign is an indigenous symbol of a democratic process so often absent from Nigeria’s governance.
  • Kony 2012 was a campaign of Western norms, projected globally. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is a campaign of global norms, projected locally.

These comparisons are both correct and incorrect:

  • Neither Kony 2012 nor Bring Back Our Girls are isolated moments, in space or time. As LRA researcher Ledio Cakaj observes, the Concerned Parents Association, a civil society group in northern Uganda, emerged in the aftermath of a mass LRA abduction in 1996. Its guiding norms–the return and protection of abducted children–more closely mimic the Bring Back Our Girls campaign’s than they do Kony 2012’s. Their values remained local in nature, and largely local in scale.
  • Kony 2012 was, fundamentally, a campaign of Western norms, but for reasons rarely referenced. The theory of change behind Kony 2012 was indirect: in its advocacy efforts, Invisible Children sought to alter U.S. foreign policy first, and the LRA’s operations second. By their telling, Kony 2012 participants shifted the moral compass of U.S. foreign policy to achieve new rights for LRA-affected civilians. For many, this citizen engagement–democratic participation, on behalf of others beyond ourselves–is a contradiction in terms; some days, I count myself among this crowd.
  • In a global ecosystem, how do we trace the location of a norm? Here, the theory of power is imperfect. The story of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, both analog and digital, is as follows: the parents of the abducted draw attention to their plight, which draws the attention of their local communities, which draws the attention of their national communities, which draws the attention of their international communities. This path is rarely static: the stories of the parents of the abducted resound alongside the empathy and sympathy of their global supporters. Instinctively, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign is a local event, staged before a global audience. But at what point is this no longer true, and how do we ensure that those local stories remain as resilient as their narrators?

the powers of human rights advocacy (or, happy almost birthday, #kony2012)

It’s been almost one year since Invisible Children released its #Kony2012 video, which sparked both viral enthusiasm and visceral controversy. At the time, I published a critical perspective, which to my satisfaction was distributed widely and, for the most part, favorably. I spent much of the ensuing month assessing, reassessing, and revising my analysis, attempting to understand why #Kony2012 was both important and problematic, and what the campaign’s impact implied about the contemporary value of domestic mobilization around international human rights issues. Others asked similar questions; if their answers varied widely, I found the discussion fruitful.

I’ve learned a lot since #Kony2012’s release about defining success and failure in human rights advocacy, both experientially, through my work with STAND, and academically. Those who are familiar with my STAND work, which focuses on mobilizing domestic constituencies around atrocity prevention in U.S. foreign policy, know that I have a particular concept of the organization’s value, which despite similar origins differs widely from Invisible Children’s. In short, I see STAND’s contribution to the United States’ broader atrocity prevention community as a “leadership development” role, due to its small footprint, its student-led function, and its consciously limited access to DC’s policymaking community. This priority places a stronger emphasis on long-term capacity-building, and the creation of domestic “communities of practice” around atrocity prevention. In defining this role, I consciously omit factors that, as my colleagues have identified, are critical to domestic political mobilization: why people act, how individual activists see their role in a broader community, and what activists want to see from their actions. Where this concept has generated discursive enthusiasm among STAND’s leadership contingent, it’s received understandably limited traction within the organization’s grassroots constituency, likely for the reasons described above.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve also thought a lot about power: what it means to hold power, which types of power influence politics, and how these power structures impact organizational processes, preferences, and decision-making. As my previous post acknowledged, most of my power-related thinking has occurred in the context of my senior thesis, which examines “relational” power’s impact on mass atrocity response outcomes. Domestic human rights mobilization is tangential to this larger focus, due to the myriad of power forms that impact policy- and non-policy structures. At the same time, my post-#Kony2012 concern for advocacy impacts was indisputably formative in my analytic understanding of power–see, for example, my two-part series on whether (and how) “advocacy works.” Given my recent emphasis on relational power, as well as #Kony2012’s upcoming anniversary, I thought it might be worthwhile to riff empirical on #Kony2012, a positive case study in human rights advocacy’s power.

As I suggested in my initial post, #Kony2012’s case study applications emerged as a cross-section of the organizing and transnational advocacy literatures. #Kony2012 intentionally framed its advocacy as a “people power” movement, encouraging students, especially, to conduct targeted actions around specific, domestically-oriented asks: guerrilla flyering would “make Kony famous” among U.S. political constituencies, while Congressional actions–call-in days, lobbying efforts, a mass petition–would “build political will” for U.S. policy against the Lord’s Resistance Army. Invisible Children’s campaign actions, scheduled over the course of several months, varied intentionally in participation rates: not everyone who shared the Facebook video participated in the 20 April “day of action,” and not everyone who participated in the “day of action” joined MOVE DC, a part-lobby day, part-summit, part-dance party that convened in Washington, DC. This participatory variation, which organizers often refer to as a “ladder of engagement”, is an intentional organizing strategy: scaled campaigns acknowledge variations in social incentives, motives, and capacities for action, and often structure events and opportunities accordingly. The campaign’s purpose, as Marshall Ganz instructs, is the activation of different levels of social influence, which construct “people power” in particular ways. If singular actions produce individual results, the purpose of an aggregated campaign is the creation of intentional, escalating social change.

In addition to its “people power” role, #Kony2012 also functioned as a transnational advocacy movement: Invisible Children operates on-the-ground reconstruction, early warning, and development programs in northern Uganda, and its networks are often global, due in part to its prominent reliance on evangelical Christian communities as its organizing base. In the case of #Kony2012, transnational media networks–both “traditional” and “social”–also proved influential, as non-American constituencies, especially throughout the African diaspora, interacted with the campaign’s content, impacts, and digital platform. If hashtags are any indicator of norm diffusion–and they might be, if in an ephemeral sort of way–#Kony2012 took the cake: #StopKony, #Kony2012, and, adversarially, #StopIC were trending for days. Invisible Children proved uniquely effective at setting national, international, and transnational agendas, as well: the UN Security Council, the U.S. Congress, and “gatekeeper” human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) each brought #Kony2012 into public policy deliberations.

Invisible Children quickly raised these impacts to the fore, highlighting in a new video the campaign’s “people power” and policy outcomes. That #Kony2012 was influential is largely indisputable, but simply highlighting its positive consequences omits key factors in empirical analysis. How was #Kony2012 influential? Through which actors, and through which means? And, if we can use #Kony2012 as a qualitative case study, what is it about these institutions, communities, and structures that makes them especially susceptible to human rights organizations’ multi-pronged power?

As I highlighted in my previous post, Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall’s analysis of power in international relations offers a compelling framework for understanding political influence. Barnett and Duvall discuss power as a relational, social phenomenon, which I adopt to mean “an actor’s ability to influence organizational processes, preferences, and decision-making through interactive means.” As a social phenomenon, power is multi-directional, which means it can have an impact on its target, the target’s respondent actor, or the respondent actor’s component members. Barnett and Duvall identify four forms of relational power, each of which interact with one another to shape change in their proximate and distant environments: compulsory power, which functions through an institution’s political “technologies”; institutional power, which functions by changing, creating, and defining an organization’s standard operating procedures, processes, and rules; structural power, which defines social hierarchies (who rules/is ruled, who leads/follows, who is included/excluded, and so on) through existing norms; and productive power, which constructs new norms and identities for social communities and organizations. If these four power types impact diverse social interactions, their implementation relies on the type of actor, the actor’s context, and the community of actors participating in social exchange. That is, human rights advocates’ application of Barnett and Duvall’s taxonomy looks very different, and functions through different mechanisms, than mass atrocity response efforts’, writ large.

In Invisible Children’s context, we can differentiate between target and respondent actors. Three subtypes, in particular, comprise Invisible Children’s respondent constituencies: “in-group” activists, who participate in the organization’s campaign; “out-group” activists, who oppose the organization’s campaign; and “elite” movement leaders (Ben Keesey, John Prendergast, Kenneth Roth, Michael Poffenberger, among others), who function as “gatekeepers” of policymaker access, expertise, and, for the purposes of our domestically-focused case study, legislative outreach. Obviously, we can further disaggregate these actor subtypes, as attempts to classify individuals carry inherent observational problems. For example, there’s a quantitative and qualitative difference between an “in-group” activist who posts a video on Facebook, and one who participates in a Congressional action. Under the logic of community organizing, however, grassroots actions are “effective” at an aggregated level–after all, the term is “people power,” rather than “person power.” Accordingly, while discrete categories may exist within “in-group” activist constituencies, as well as “out-group” activists and movement elites, these empirical categories are not entirely off-the-mark.

As for target actors, #Kony2012’s was singular: the U.S. government. In theory, we can subdivide this further: the campaign included both legislative and executive branch-oriented components, and actively devoted resources towards both target actors. All other target actors, however, were indirect, at least on a publicly observable level: Invisible Children devoted financial resources towards “catching” Kony, in keeping with its programmatic priorities, but those efforts were tangential, rather than central, to the advocacy campaign’s messaging, resources, and design. The UN, too, was a secondary, rather than primary actor: Invisible Children sought to influence UN Security Council priorities through U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, rather than through, say, the Togolese consulate. Accordingly, we can restrict our target analysis to the U.S. government’s executive branch–in particular, the National Security Council/Staff–and the legislative branch.

Over the next week, I will assess the influence of Barnett and Duvall’s power taxonomy on Invisible Children’s advocacy outcomes. While acknowledging the influence of pre-#Kony2012 outcomes on #Kony2012’s relational power, I will restrict my timeframe to post-video events, in keeping with Invisible Children’s public analysis of the campaign’s success. By success, I refer to a publicly apparent shift in the target actor’s processes, preferences, or decision-making. This is not to suggest a coercive model of power, as Robert Dahl implies, but merely to view change as the logical outcome of a “successful” human rights advocacy campaign. I will conclude my analysis with a fifth post, which highlights “lessons-learned” for domestic mobilization around international human rights issues.


* For various reasons, I confine my empirical analysis to matters domestic, and will refrain from comment on U.S. foreign policy actions towards the LRA. Additionally, as scholars, activists, and practitioners have critiqued the campaign’s factual, ethical, and discursive elements, this analysis also omits those subjects.

are international policy interventions in mass atrocity events effective?

As I mentioned in my hiatus post, I’ve taken the past few months to delve into my undergraduate thesis. Initially, I intended to center my thesis research on the role of “leverage” in mass atrocity-related policy interventions. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, this topic stems from a pervasive research gap in the theoretical and empirical literature on atrocity prevention, which likely over-emphasizes the role of policy technologies in atrocity-related interventions. Scholars and policy specialists discuss third-party incentives in the context of particular types of interventions, rather than the actors that comprise them. This is both theoretically and practically problematic: the former, because it diminishes the political context for atrocity interventions, and the latter, because adversarial contexts mitigate the potential dividends of third-party interventions.

In the course of my preliminary research, I’ve jumped into a robust literature on power that indicates that, in contrast to my initial expectations, leverage may not be the best framework with which to understand the political context for third-party interventions in mass atrocity events. Leverage is a largely material concept and, as diverse studies on soft power and norm diffusion, suggest, material initiatives comprise a fraction of policymakers’ tools of statecraft. Nye offers a broader typology, the “three faces of power,” which highlights the diffuse and direct mechanisms that drive state and non-state actors in the international system. The best analysis I found, however, was Barnett and Duvall’s “taxonomy” of power in international relations. The authors develop their taxonomy around two dichotomous variables. In its impact on international actors, power can be either direct or diffuse, while its implementation operates through social processes, or by constructing them. In my thesis, I refer to this as a “relational power” dynamic, because of the social character of power politics between actors in the international system. This concept is a well-tread subject in multi-disciplinary theories of power: it pops up in the relevant literature on international relations, diplomatic negotiation, and community organizing.

I’m currently digging through my research design, but I thought it would be useful to use the blog as a platform to crowd-source feedback from the digital peacebuilding and conflict resolution community. Here’s the research design: I’d love your comments on design, format, clarity, case selection, and theory. What am I missing?

reimagining violence: civilian peacekeeping in atrocity response policy

Danny Hirschel-Burns is a junior at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, PA. He blogs at The Widening Lens, and you can follow him on Twitter at @DHirschelBurns.

While military responses to mass atrocities remain an emerging tool, various forms of military intervention—including unilateral, multilateral, and covert military activity—have become increasingly popular in public discourse. As Micah Zenko has observed, militant perspectives on atrocities response have become widespread, among civilian policymakers and public commentators alike. Often, support for military interventions relies on short-term, limited criteria: that is, whether or not the intervention successfully roots out the violence.

In order for a military intervention to be truly successful, however, it would have to not only mitigate violence against civilians, but also build the target nation’s capacity to prevent further violence from occurring. As the United States’ nation-building exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, however, military forces have little ability establish resilient institutions and build a strong civil society. While military interventions may eliminate some of the forces responsible for violence against civilians, Dursen Peksen has demonstrated that foreign interventions may increase the level of human rights abuses committed by the target government. While the notion of a “neutral” force deployment has gained currency in contemporary discussions of atrocities response in Syria, the notion of a neutral intervention is a fantasy; as Richard Betts has argued, any active military forces takes a side when engaging hostile forces. The glaring ineffectiveness, as well as the inevitable non-neutrality of external interventions, should take military intervention off the table as a future response to mass atrocities.

In spite of the negative long-term effects of military intervention, many human rights advocates and hawkish policymakers reason military force as a moral imperative. Diplomacy, a crucial, if undervalued mechanism for atrocities prevention and response, is often demonized, due to the perceived moral hazard of negotiating with unsavory regimes, non-state actors, and multinational institutions. Mass atrocities are messy, and even if negotiated settlements are imperfect, they can have a positive impact on the trajectory of violence in civil conflict.

Civilian peacekeeping (CP), too, remains an under-utilized approach. Civilian peacekeeping has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence: he imagined a nonviolent army of civilian peacekeepers, but was unable to complete his vision before his 1948 assassination. His vision was partially realized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Shanti Sena, a nonviolent peacekeeping force, intervened in three separate riots in India, with varying, but generally positive levels of success. Other organizations, like Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), Peace Brigades International (PBI), Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), and Michigan Peace Team (MPT) have more recently emerged as forms of civilian nonviolent intervention in conflict areas worldwide. Civilian peacekeeping, based on the theory of third-party nonviolent intervention, relies on a diversity of tactics: interposition, observation and documentation, protective accompaniment, and modeling nonviolent behavior. NP, the largest organization of the four, maintains hundreds of professional peacekeepers from around the world. NP has successfully deployed peacekeepers on a long-term and short-term basis. NP maintained peacekeepers in Sri Lanka for almost ten years during the civil war, and has responded quickly to outbreaks of violence in Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, and South Sudan.

CP has some important advantages over traditional forms of peacekeeping. Since peacekeepers are civilians, they do not represent entire governments, nor are they burdened with the military mindset that contradicts civilian protection strategies. Civilian peacekeepers may maintain their neutrality, as they seek to prevent violence on all sides, whereas humanitarian military interventions pick a side when they engage an opponent. Civilian peacekeepers’ mediation is both more constant and non-hostile, so peacekeepers may establish a rapport with multiple conflict parties, making broad-based participation more likely. CP, as a form of non-state intervention, avoids the burden-sharing dilemmas frequently associated with military interventions. In addition to its structural benefits, CP’s emphasis on civil society participation is its greatest value-added. A strong civil society is crucial to preventing mass atrocities and a component of any well-functioning, participatory society. The presence of civilian peacekeepers is a constructive process, as peacekeepers work with the community to create sustainable domestic institutions. With their focus on constructive, rather than destructive civilian protection, CP operations should play a more prominent role in international atrocities prevention and response policy.

If you are interested in contributing to Securing Rights, please contact Daniel Solomon at daniel.solomon18@gmail.com.

changing gears

As of this post, Securing Rights will look different. Other commitments have–and will continue to–restrict my ability to publish as flexibly, creatively, and widely as I’ve attempted to over the past seven months. Rather than wallow in a constant state of writer’s flux, I’d rather take a bit of time away from the blog, in order to reconfigure its role in the online discourse on human rights, international affairs, and foreign policy.

A good blog is, first and foremost, a disruptive act. Insofar as the Internet approximates a democratic, inclusive, and dynamic community of ideas, a good blog allows writers to break down intellectual and ideological hierarchies, diffuse new ideas, and create space for the creation of novel interpretive frameworks. A good blog complicates reductive narratives, and identifies ways of seeing the world, its events, and its institutions that fall outside the confines of organizational procedure, policy, and process.

I’ve tried to make this a good blog. Working as the head of a student human rights organization, I acknowledged the need for a broader, more pluralistic human rights discourse, particularly as pertains to atrocities prevention, civilian protection, and U.S. foreign policy. Impact is difficult to measure, but, at the very least, I challenged myself to think about news ways of confronting mass-atrocities issues, and that’s probably the most you can hope for. Securing Rights won’t get us there, but a new generation of human rights leaders, which emerges from a period of democratized information, disruptive diffusion, and intellectual complexity just might.

So, I’m changing gears. Seven months may seem like a short time, but plenty has happened–both personally and externally–to convince me that a new approach is needed. Through my work with STAND, I’ve been able to identify a broad network of youth human rights leaders who are increasingly dissatisfied with our traditional, moralistic, and didactic approach to human rights policy, and is working to identify something different. I’m not sure we’ll settle on what that “different” is, but it’s worth poking around a bit, in order to identify new lenses through which a next generation perceives, interprets, and knows the challenge of atrocities prevention. In Securing Rights’ next stage, I’m going to do my best to cull from this emergent brain trust, and to build a community of young, rights-oriented practitioners united by the inherent creativity, dynamism, and disruptiveness of their discourse.

In the meantime, I’m working on a few projects, which I might post about every so often. I’ve mentioned my undergraduate thesis before, and referenced it in a number of posts: I’m interested in the ways in which U.S. atrocities response policy has approached the question of policy leverage and international-political influence, and what that can tell us about human rights approaches within a multipolar system. U.S. power may not be decreasing, but our credible influence in mitigating atrocities, negotiating conflict resolution, and preventing outbreaks is surely on the wane. There’s plenty of case-study research on the leverage question, particularly as pertains to the role of U.S. policy in democratic transition and consolidation, but I’m interested in approaching the question from a broader qualitative and, if I can write three lines of Stata code without crashing my computer, quantitative standpoint.

Then, there’s the atrocities early warning issue: next year, I’m working with the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy on a year-long fellowship, which will address the role of national-security organizational cultures in the implementation of early warning tools, atrocities intelligence, and preventive forecasting. The atrocities prevention community talks a big game about the importance of early warning, but we’ve never done a good job identifying the ways in which those warning tools operate within the institutions responsible for deploying them. I’ll focus on Darfur as a case study, due to the added emergence and contribution of non-governmental and commercial intelligence to atrocities monitoring and warning.

The last project is the one about which I’m most passionate and, unfortunately, the one which I’ve had the least time to work on over the past two years. Two Augusts ago, Tony Judt died, having experienced the slow, debilitating consequences of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Judt was hardly an influential commentator, in the way that we discuss Aron, Hobsbawm, or Arendt as contributors to the course of twentieth-century events and, more importantly, ideas. He published a number of excellent books on the intellectual history of the French Left, the politics of European integration, and the postwar social-democratic consensus, of which Postwar is probably the only one read with any significant regularity. For most, Judt is (unfortunately) known as a sometimes-rabble-rouser on Arab-Israeli affairs, due to his endorsement of the “one-state solution” in the New York Review of Books. But, much more interesting than his perspectives on the state of human rights and political conflict in Israel, his commentary on European politics, and his incisive writing on the contemporary decline of social-democratic governance, is the extent to which Judt lived his intellectual evolution. Compared to his revolutionary counterparts at Cambridge, Judt’s postwar-generation experience was relatively mild, but in all the right ways. Judt was actively involved in the pivotal moments of his generation of British-American, postwar Jews–the student upheavals of 1968, the Six-Day War, the Eastern European revolutions–in the most marginal of ways. In that way, Judt’s writing on the public commons, on sustaining slivers of Jewish identity within a secular society, and on the state of public discourse is all the more relevant, in spite of its marginal influence. My project, which I’ve been thinking about since Judt died, will attempt to capture a smidgen of this relevance, and to discuss the ways in which Judt’s intellectual biography should inform our current discourse on ideological pluralism, the role of communal identities in the public sphere, and the collective experience of democratic society.

Anyway, that’s what I’ll be up to while I’m not blogging, and I hope you’ll check back in for a reimagined platform for human rights discourse, when it’s up and running.

is time on our side? (part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the varied gaps in our understanding of historical atrocities trends, and the need for a multi-level perspective on the ways in which atrocities have occurred within societies, political institutions, and conflict operations. The piece–the first in a three-part series–was intended as a survey of contemporary perspectives, and the ways in which we might hypothesize frameworks for further research. In the absence of tangible, disaggregated historical data–particularly concerning pre-1945 periods–the most we can do is speculate about opportunities to diversify interpretations of atrocity events, organizations, and networks. In this post, I talk about the present literature on governance institutions and mass atrocities, and ways to advance a more complex understanding.

Revisiting Governance: An Institutional-Level Approach

A “democratic peace theory” strand of academic literature was the first to confront the intersection between governance and mass atrocities. Rudolph Rummel, writing in the mid-1990s, offers a liberal-democratic perspective on atrocities risk, highlighting non-democratic governance as a central atrocities indicator and correlate. Matt Krain, however, has observed a core shortcoming of a preventive theory of atrocities and democratic governance: Rummel’s framework, which identifies authoritarian regimes as inherently more likely to perpetrate atrocities, characterizes political institutions as static, monolithic actors; in the absence of political dynamism and, in extreme circumstances, upheaval, democratic states will remain democratic, with little variation between and within internal networks. As Krain notes, a thorough base of comparative governance and democratization research has complicated this perspective, noting the instability, factionalism, and accountability challenges associated with transitional regimes.

To make matters more complicated, what we perceive as democratization does not always foster the types of transitions we want, nor the types of transitions that will lead to long-term stability, a reduction in atrocities, or an increase in human security. As Jay Ulfelder wrote earlier this week, confounding factors often muddle the experience of political transition–in the context of “democratization” events, atrocities may become more frequent, rather than less. Non-comparative surveys of historical atrocities have presented the democratization/atrocities interaction as a novel characteristic of emerging regime types: as Branch and Cheeseman indicate in their survey of Kenya’s 2007-8 electoral violence, democratization is a risky business, and its advocates, practitioners, and participants should proceed with caution. Similar narratives populate coverage of older atrocities, highlighting the “dark side” of transitional politics: 1933 Germany was democratic, due to the confluence of Weimar culture and civil society, the German Rechtstaat, and parliamentary representation; 1994 Rwanda emerged as a multiparty experiment, following Habyarimana’s status-quo-threatening reforms.

Democracy may–or, alternately, may not–reduce historical atrocities risk–as Krain indicates, atrocities prospects likely depend on the quality of democratization, rather than whether or not democracy, per se, exists. In reality, atrocities indicators may have less to do with democratic institutions–popular participation, representative leadership, and inclusive governance–and more to do with the transitional dynamics of civilian/military relations, an underemphasized aspect of the democratization discourse. Barbara Geddes highlights varied regime-type typologies, underlining bargaining distinctions between multiparty, military, and “personalist” regimes. Or, as Geddes notes, regimes may represent a confluence of the three, in ways which are not strikingly evident to atrocities watchers: see, for example, Turkey, which maintains a partially-consolidated democracy, alongside a disproportionately influential shadow regime, comprised of strongly-networked military elites. The Turkish “deep state” mirrors Rwanda’s Zero Network, which orchestrated Rwanda’s atrocities infrastructure, in the midst of multiparty democratization. An indirect relationship between civilian/military relations and atrocities risk is plausible, if not robust: as political transition continues to disrupt the status quo, undermining shadow military networks’ political influence, the prospect for instability likely increases.

According to the Polity IV project, the world is getting more democratic. From an institutional perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re getting better at mitigating atrocities risk.

is time on our side? (part 1)

Last month, Jay Ulfelder posted a characteristically insightful perspective on time-sequenced selection bias, which, in the midst of the “Congress defunds political science research” debacle, remains strikingly relevant. The central point, beyond the piece’s implications for research methodology, pertains to the indispensable humility of political forecasting. Forecasting, like much of historical analysis, is a teleological process–that is, it presumes the progression of human events towards a pre-configured goal: mass atrocities, political conflict, instability, or state failure. As Jay discusses in his post, however–and Anton Strezhnev references in a related discussion–the limits of human knowledge, the dynamic nature of political events, and history’s inconsistent evolution gives forecasters pause. The inherent uncertainty of political knowledge makes our predictions, historical analysis, and political narratives chaotic, even as we develop models to rationalize them:

Given a choice between a chaotic theory of history and a conspiratorial one, I’ll take chaos…Marry chaos to biography and we live in a world of wonder and innocence. Marry conspiracy to genealogy and we live in a world of unending inequality, in which our origins are inescapable.

The quote is from Jill Lepore’s New Yorker review (gated) of David Maraniss’ recent Obama biography, which Lepore critiques for its unwillingness the confront the contradiction between crazy-random-happenstance and the smooth, deterministic course of narrative biography. You might as well substitute “international politics” for “biography,” and “political development” for “genealogy”: the result is much the same. As in the study of individual lives, the characteristics we choose, the event data we aggregate, and the behavioral typologies we establish have an inescapable effect on predictive conclusions, whether we’re assessing individual decision-making, mass atrocities, or institutional breakdown.

Modeling Historical Atrocities Trends

As concerns mass atrocities, Jay references the rarity of atrocity events as a barrier to trans-historical, empirical analysis; indeed, the multi-level, complex ubiquity of atrocity events is equally challenging. While diffuse information networks amplify knowledge of present-day atrocity events, forensic technologies yield a limited base of tangible atrocities evidence. For macro-level, multi-event-based forcasting, atrocities data needn’t be precise, but the principle remains: we know too little about historical atrocity events, and our existing forecasting base contains significant gaps across local, intra-organizational, and sub-state levels of analysis.

Prediction, however, is possible. Mass atrocities are political events, and political forecasting has a proven record of success. It’s not Moneyball, but existing models of political instability prediction have made impressive contributions to our understanding of conflict indicators. According to recent research, predictive models operate at both the macro- and micro-levels, with institutional, structural, and social factors providing a useful localized assessment framework. Atrocity analysis across history, however, remains elusive; we know plenty about the post-Cold War era, but our understanding of mass atrocities’ non-modern characteristics, their rocky, inconsistent evolution towards the present-day, and the ways in which they have interacted with their political contexts, is woefully limited.

Jay makes this point well–with 66 years of atrocities data since the Second World War, it’s hard to tell whether Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya are historical anomalies, or problematic trend indicators. Statistically speaking, the “n” is too small, without a regionally diverse dataset to strengthen empirical inquiry. With such a small set of atrocities–Ulfelder and Valentino’s 2008 “state-sponsored mass killing” list offers 120 atrocity events, some of which span more than sixty years–modeling trends is a difficult task. But, like I said, it’s a possible one.

In keeping with trends in political science research, disaggregated atrocities modeling requires a shift in premise: atrocity events are all-encompassing, complex political events, rather than exclusive, humanitarian catastrophes. Frameworks beyond state-sponsored violence are difficult to consolidate and, perhaps as importantly, to quantify. At the same time, a reinterpretation of atrocities as an extension of political authority, rather than unique, depoliticized occurrences, may be a helpful way forward. Mass atrocities have functioned as a mechanism of power throughout human history–major historical works, epic poems, and theological texts describe mass atrocities as a critical, nearly universal characteristics of state formation, political expansion, and ideological consolidation. Human institutions may have crafted normative barriers to atrocities perpetration, but the core, driving force of violent politics makes atrocities possible, regardless of modernity. It’s not a matter of human nature, but of power–in the context of institutions which, indisputably, rely on the consolidation of acute violence, acute violence is bound to occur.

If we see atrocities as a symptom of political violence, a multi-level understanding of atrocities’ historical development emerges: that is, an evolving, interactive relationship between individual, operational, and institutional dynamics. This evolution underlines an interpretation of Jay’s central question: is our ability to mitigate atrocities improving, and how do we interpret blips on the trend graph?

Mapping Dehumanization: An Individual-Level Approach

I’ve discussed the individual-level analysis of atrocities perpetration before, but its historical and causal elements are worth developing. An individual-level understanding of mass atrocities addresses the following question: why do individuals participate in atrocity regimes, and how do individual perceptions of social factors impact atrocities mobilization? Psychologists and, more recently, anthropologists have found methodological common ground in the study of individual-level atrocity trends. The results are hardly surprising, and confirm a broad consensus on the cognitive and societal determinants of human violence: atrocities result from cognitive processes of dehumanization (the psychologist), which manifest themselves as social myths, cultures, and histories (the anthropologist). However, lest we reduce the individual-level perspective to Goldhagenian monocausality, a bit of nuance is required: dehumanization acutely manifests itself during periods of profound social, political, and economic stress; the dehumanization context in 1994 Rwanda appears notably distinct from, say, contemporary right-wing rhetoric against European immigrant and minority populations.

If atrocities operate at an individual and societal level, how can we understand historical trends in atrocities perpetration? Steven Pinker’s much-bemoaned, much-praised Better Angels of Our Nature provides an important framework, in spite of his problematic causal explanations. To observe that violence has declined throughout modern history is, to a certain extent, an empirical fact, despite  data gaps in non-Western regions. Using the “decline of violence” data and the normative evolution of popular culture, civil society, and political institutions as key factors in the modern story of human society, Pinker observes humanity inching ever-so-slowly towards a Kantian aspiration of sustainable, if not perpetual peace. Pinker’s critical analysis of popular culture is novel, but it provides insufficient grist to demonstrate that human society is, in fact, getting nicer, more peaceable, and less conflict-prone. However, given the robust qualitative interaction between hateful acts and mass atrocities, this individual-level trend may be worth probing further.

The question is likely not, “are human societies becoming less hateful?,” but, “given the existence of social, economic, and political stresses, are dehumanization processes more significant to social, political, and ethnic fractionalization?” The first question perceives hate as an apolitical, exclusively normative entity; the second, in contrast, frames the ways in which hate might interact with its historical problematic. From a qualitative perspective, this is an easy find: public discourse might become less virulent, or the lexicon of social division more peaceable. The quantitative standpoint is, of course, more challenging: given disparities in press coverage, particularly in conflict-affected states, processes of hate-speech categorization, collection, and dissemination are harder to identify, to say nothing of the “salience” factor.

Emerging analytic frameworks, centered around “dangerous speech,” may strengthen our ability to monitor and assess historical trends in dehumanization. As historical atrocities are concerned, the speech itself is less significance than its application, and the ways in which rhetoric, discourse, and public communications have mobilized atrocity events against civilians. As with institutional approaches to conflict prediction, the speech-oriented atrocities trend model may operate more effectively at the local level, especially given the relatively nascent nature of international hate-speech/-crime reporting. Insofar as transnational media trends remain non-standardized, a contextual understanding of informal media–pamphlets, new media, oral forms of information diffusion–is necessary.